Social media can be an important tool in organising anti-establishment protests but it can’t be the only one. Excerpts from an analysis by Marko Papic and Sean Noonan of STRATFOR
Internet services were reportedly restored in Egypt on Feb 2 after being completely shutdown for two days. Egyptian authorities unplugged the last Internet service provider (ISP) still operating Jan 31 amidst ongoing protests across the country. The other four ISPs in Egypt – Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt and Etisalat Misr — were shut down as the crisis boiled over on Jan. 27. Commentators immediately assumed this was a response to the organisational capabilities of social media websites that Cairo could not completely block from public access.
The role of social media in protests and revolutions has garnered considerable media attention in recent years. Current conventional wisdom has it that social networks have made regime change easier to organise and execute.
How to Use Social Media
The situations in Tunisia and Egypt have both seen an increased use of social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter to help organise, communicate and ultimately initiate civil-disobedience campaigns and street actions. The Iranian “Green Revolution” in 2009 was closely followed by the Western media via YouTube and Twitter, and the latter even gave Moldova’s 2009 revolution its moniker, the “Twitter Revolution.”
Foreign observers – and particularly the media – are mesmerized by the ability to track events and cover diverse locations, perspectives and demographics in real time. But a revolution is far more than what we see and hear on the internet – it requires organisation, funding and mass appeal. Social media no doubt offer advantages in disseminating messages quickly and broadly, but they also are vulnerable to government counter-protest tactics. And while the effectiveness of the tool depends on the quality of a movement’s leadership, a dependence on social media can actually prevent good leadership from developing.
The key for any protest movement is to inspire and motivate individuals to go from the comfort of their homes to the chaos of the streets and face off against the government. Social media allow organisers to involve like-minded people in a movement at a very low cost, but they do not necessarily make these people move. Instead of attending meetings, workshops and rallies, un-committed individuals can join a Facebook group or follow a Twitter feed at home, which gives them some measure of anonymity (though authorities can easily track IP addresses) but does not necessarily motivate them to physically hit the streets and provide fuel for a revolution. At the end of the day, for a social media-driven protest movement to be successful, it has to translate social media membership into street action.
With lower organisational and communications costs, a movement can depend less on outside funding, which also allows it to create the perception of being a purely indigenous movement (without foreign supporters) and one with wide appeal.
Countering Social Media
Like any other tool, social media have their drawbacks. Lowering the costs of communication also diminishes operational security. Facebook messages can be open for all to see, and even private messages can be viewed by authorities through search warrants in more open countries or pressure on the Internet social media firms in more closed ones. Indeed, social media can quickly turn into a valuable intelligence-collection tool. A reliance on social media can also be exploited by a regime willing to cut the country off from internet or domestic text messaging networks altogether, as has been the case in Egypt.
The capability of governments to monitor and counteract social media developed alongside the capability of their intelligence services. In order to obtain an operating license in any country, social networking websites have to come to some sort of agreement with the government.
In many countries, this involves getting access to user data, locations and network information. Facebook profiles, for example, can be a boon for government intelligence collectors, who can use updates and photos to pinpoint movement locations and activities and identify connections among various individuals, some of whom may be suspect for various activities. (Facebook has received funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm, and many Western intelligence services have start-up budgets to develop Internet technologies that will enable even deeper mining of Internet-user data.) The most effective way for the government to use social media is to monitor what protest organisers are telling their adherents either directly over the Internet or by inserting an informant into the group, counteracting the protestors wherever and whenever they assemble.
Authorities monitoring protests at World Trade Organisation and G-8 meetings as well as the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the United States have used this successfully. Over the past two years in Egypt, the April 6 Movement has found the police ready and waiting at every protest location. Only in recent weeks has popular support grown to the point where the movement has presented a serious challenge to the security services.
One of the biggest challenges for security services is to keep up with the rapidly changing Internet. In Iran, the regime quickly shut down Facebook but not Twitter, not realizing the latter’s capabilities. If social media are presenting a demonstrable threat to governments, it could become vital for security services to continually refine and update plans for disrupting new Internet technology.
Quality of Leadership vs. Cost of Participation
There is no denying that social media represent an important tool for protest movements to effectively mobilize their adherents and communicate their message. As noted above, however, the effectiveness of the tool depends on its user, and an over-reliance can become a serious detriment (for what?).
One way it can hurt a movement is in the evolution of its leadership.
A revolutionary group cannot rely on its most tech-savvy leaders to ultimately launch a successful revolution any more than a business can depend on the IT department to sell its product. It is part of the overall strategy, but it cannot be the sole strategy.
To lead a protest movement effectively, an organisation’s leadership has to venture outside of cyberspace. It has to learn what it means to face off against a regime’s counterintelligence capabilities in more than just the virtual world. By holding workshops and mingling among the populace, the core leadership of a movement learns the different strategies that work best with different social strata and how to appeal to a broad audience. Essentially, leaders of a movement that exploits the use of social media must take the same risks as those of groups that lack such networking capability. The convenience and partial anonymity of social media can decrease the motivation of a leader to get outside and make things happen.
Moreover, a leadership grounded in physical reality is one that constructs and sticks to a concerted plan of action. The problem with social media is that they subvert the leadership of a movement while opening it to a broader membership. This means that a call for action may spread like wildfire before a movement is sufficiently prepared, which can put its survival in danger. In many ways, the Iranian Green Revolution is a perfect example of this. The call for action brought a self-selected group of largely educated urban youth to protest in the streets, where the regime cracked down harshly on a movement it believed was not broad enough to constitute a real threat.
Social media represent only one tool among many for an opposition group to employ. Protest movements are rarely successful if led from somebody’s basement in a virtual arena. Their leaders must have charisma and street smarts, just like leaders of any organisation. A revolutionary group cannot rely on its most tech-savvy leaders to ultimately launch a successful revolution any more than a business can depend on the IT department to sell its product. It is part of the overall strategy, but it cannot be the sole strategy.